Gaelic harps in 18th century Scotland

As part of my work to re-connect with the most recent threads of the old Gaelic harp traditions, I have been working a lot on the late 18th and early 19th century Irish tradition-bearers. In some ways that work is easy; we have portraits, we have their harps in the museums, and we have live transcriptions of their playing, both treble and bass.

But what about the Scottish side of the tradition? What do we actually know about the 18th century Scottish harpers? To begin, what do we know about the instruments they were playing?

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Edith Taylor of Rahoy

I first became aware of Edith Taylor many years ago, from reading Frances Collinson’s book The traditional and national music of Scotland. After describing briefly the wire-strung clarsachs made by Arnold Dolmetsch, he writes:

Miss Edith Taylor, the first Honorary Secretary of Comunn na ClĂ rsaich, has one of these on which she once played for the writer at a B.B.C. ‘Country Magazine’ programme from Lochaline, Morvern.

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Continuity of tradition

It is a common trope in the world of historical Gaelic harp studies that the tradition was “broken” in the 19th century, that the revivers of the harp of Ireland and Scotland had no contact with the last of the old tradition-bearers. But yesterday, Sylvia asked me if I was sure that this was true, and so I started to wonder.

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Carlione

Looking through the books from the Jimmy Shand Collection in Dundee library for a tune to play on Saturday week at the free community concert in Dundee, I noticed “Carlione a Favourite Irish Tune” in Neil Gow’s third collection (1792). It is Dr John Stafford, or Carolan’s Receipt (no. 161 in Donal O’Sullivan’s index).

Whether or not I’lI get it up and running to play in two weeks time, it got me thinking about tunes titled with strange variants of Carolan’s name.

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Hand position

I’m working on the 3rd edition of my book Progressive Lessons. I decided to be more focussed and concentrate only on the three beginners’ tunes from the testimony of Patrick Quin and Denis O’Hampsey. Looking again at the manuscript sources, I am seeing a lot of things that I had not paid attention to before, and which are worryingly different from the way I have been playing and teaching these tunes up to now.

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a common chord

Speaking on 10th July, 1849, the Irish harper Patrick Byrne explained to the antiquarian John Bell, the system for tuning the early Irish harp. After starting at na comhluighe, and using a cycle of 5ths to set the middle octave of the harp, he says

Then you sound the G on the violin & B & D, and the octave above which is G which makes a common chord

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